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The Cynicism of Post-Modernism

January 10th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In October of 2006, news broke that Harvard was considering revamping it's core undergraduate curriculum.  Now, over a year later, the final report and recommendations has been released.

While I haven't yet had a chance to read it myself, R.R. Reno has--and he isn't a fan.  He writes:

Although there is a nod toward the objectivity of scientific knowledge, the emphasis falls on the therapy of critique. “The aim of a liberal education,” we read, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.”

If Reno's analysis is accurate, the document is clearly indicative of the fatal and disastrous split between the sciences and humanities that C.S. Lewis decried in The Abolition of Man.  As Reno puts it,

One might think that a class on Shakespeare, for example, would have as its goal an encounter with the content of his plays. But it appears not to be so. “Students,” we learn, “should know how to ‘read’ cultural and aesthetic expressions.” The scare quotes are telling. A Harvard student will not so much be taught to read Shakespeare as learn how to “read” him, which means understanding the “dynamics of culture” encoded into his poetry and plays. This should not surprise. The goal is “to help students understand themselves and others as products of and participants in traditions of culture and belief,” so that they can “understand how meanings are produced and received.” Cultural studies, in other words, supplants the humanities. It’s not what Shakespeare says that matters; it’s his role as factory that produces meaning....Apparently, when it comes to culture and belief, the liberally educated student does not entertain the question of truth. We’re back to the economics of culture.

The emptying of the humanities of any transcendental content--any content which might be judged as true or false--is rarely articulated as forcefully or persuasively as Reno does.  Ultimately, the core issue is that post-modern approaches to the humanities (and politics) depend upon "seeing through" or "seeing behind" to the ulterior power motive or cultural bias.  The ability to look along with the text at it's subject--that is, to sympathize with the text--is lost.  In such an approach, cynicism and superciliousness are inevitable consequences.

As Reno writes, "Moreover, as John Paul II pointed out again and again, responsible human freedom is not possible outside a more basic loyalty to the commands that can come to us only in and through culture. At the bottom of critique are the paradoxical extremes of either cynicism or fanaticism. One seems left with either the dark reality that all truths are fashioned and not found—or with moral or political certainties that survive in the ideological amber of the system of critique. (It’s amazing how cocksure the postmodern professors are about moral and political questions of the day.)"
Exit question:  in a political process where we see floating crosses where others see only bookshelves, are conservatives too quick to "see through" to ulterior motives?  Or is that the inevitable result of a media-saturated political environment?

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.